Confronting our tyrants: Incarceration and torture in Palestinian prisons

Findings by a Palestinian human rights group paint a grim picture of imprisonment and torture under both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas regimes. One guest blogger holds that despite the Israeli occupation, these political groups can no longer act with impunity under the guise of liberators.

By Talal Alyan

Confronting our tyrants: Incarceration and torture in Palestinian prisons
Around 200 protesters march to the Muquata, the Palestinian Authority (PA) headquarters, to protest against the latests wave of political arrests made by the Palestinian Authority, Ramallah, October 2, 2012. (photo: Activestills)

“The image before the return of the PLO was the image of the freedom fighter/ Now here is that same freedom fighter (chained with the conditions of his enemies), exercising his direct authority on the ordinary citizen, on the old men, on the students.” – Mourid Barghouti 

Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces recently arrested Zaher Ash-Shashteery, a representative of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). His alleged crime: he spoke out against the transgressions of the PA. Of course, it will come as no surprise to most Palestinians to learn about this arrest. We are all familiar with the constant human rights violations of both Hamas and the PA. We have all heard stories of protests being put down by Palestinian security forces, or of civilians being arbitrarily arrested and tortured.

It is a strange position that Palestinians find themselves in. Should we forfeit our grievances with these political powers and their cronies, and instead focus entirely on the ongoing occupation? Or should we reserve some of our effort to speak out against these ruling political factions? One main concern is that our complaints may be hijacked by sponsors of the occupation in order to divert attention from Israeli actions. This isn’t an unwarranted concern – the crisis in Syria, for instance, is often evoked to imply that we should not focus on the Israeli occupation, and that some injustices should be prioritized over others. For the same reasons that I reject this logic I also have to believe that we owe something to Palestinians languishing in the jails of Hamas and the PA. It is our responsibility to insist that their suffering not be secondary.

Arbitrary incarceration

The fear of being arrested suddenly and without charge by Israel is a frightening fact of life that most Palestinians, especially in the West Bank, have to live with. The psychological implications of going through your day knowing that you or your loved one might be snatched at any moment will for generations torment the Palestinian psyche. Unfortunately, anxiety over Israeli arrest is further agitated by a fear of abduction at the hands of the PA or Hamas. Family members of those arrested are often given no information about where their loved ones are being taken, or for how long they will be held. Similarly, the incarcerated are commonly denied access to a lawyer for extended periods of time. The Palestinian Authority arbitrarily arrested 755 persons in the West Bank in 2011. The number itself is likely an underestimate, as it only includes complaints lodged to the Independent Commission for Human Rights. The number of complaints is almost assuredly curbed by fears of retaliation. In the two years before 2011, there were around 3,045 complaints of arbitrary detention filed with ICHR against the PA.

The situation in Gaza is no less grim, with 271 complaints lodged against Hamas in 2011. The fact that these figures are significantly lower than those in the West Bank is likely due to a heightened fear of reprisal from Hamas. ICHR received 1,789 complaints about arbitrary arrests in Gaza during 2009 and 2010. Palestinian law prohibits arrests without warrants except in extraordinary circumstances. However, Human Rights Watch notes that warrants are often issued after the individual has been already been arrested and detained an extended time period.


The torture of detained Palestinians is a common occurrence in both the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian law strictly prohibits the employment of torture, as Article 13 of the Palestinian Basic Law dictates that any confessions or statement made during torture are to be considered “null and void.” Despite the clear illegality of evidence acquired by torture, confessions are often permitted in court cases and influence verdicts. Palestinians are also supposed to be given a medical examination prior to incarceration in order to establish the prisoner’s wellbeing before interrogation. However, the practice is rarely employed.

112 complaints about torture were filed with the ICHR against the PA in 2011, and Hamas was not far behind with 102 complaints filed. There were five documented deaths of Palestinians held in Hamas custody in 2011. It is worth reiterating that the listed number of individuals tortured by the PA and Hamas is most likely an underestimate. The ICHR notes the insistence on anonymity by most persons who register complaints – an indication of the concern most have about retaliation. In addition, Hamas prevents human rights workers from visiting individuals while they are being held, thereby preventing an assessment of ongoing torture. The torture methods range from beatings to mock executions, and the employment of electrical cables and strappado is also common.

Resisting all oppressors

The transgressions of the PA and Hamas do not excuse Israeli policy. They may be hijacked and exploited to conceal the occupation, but that possibility should not intimidate us into silence. Instead, it should stand as a testament to our consistency and our thirst for liberation – that we resist all forms of injustice.

It is often a misconception, believed by these authoritarian groups, that they can act with impunity under the guise of liberators. But if ever there was a commonality amongst Palestinians, a shared characteristic threading us together, it is our resentment of oppression. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority would do well to remind themselves of the endurance of Palestinian memory, and of our unwillingness to forgive subjugation regardless of the perpetrator.

Talal Alyan is a Palestinian freelance writer currently living in Syracuse, New York. He wishes to thank Nader Atassi for his advice and guidance.

Political persecution, torture as common practice and executions in Hamas-run courts
Human Rights Watch report on Hamas courts in Gaza
Palestinians and the Syrian Revolution: Lessons from the fight against fascism